When I say “false friends,” I don’t mean people who pretend to like you but then stab you in the back. False friends – words in different languages that resemble each other in sound/spelling but actually differ a great deal in meaning – can really trip up translators unfamiliar with the subject matter of the document we are translating. Because the roots of medical words are sometimes (but not always!) common between French, Spanish, and English, translators are sometimes tempted to insert the closest-sounding English term and move on with life.

Here is one example: “ganglio” (Spanish)/“ganglion” (French) and “ganglion” (English). This term originates from a 17th-century Greek word meaning “a tumor on or near the muscles/tendons.” The French and Spanish terms are essentially equivalent to each other, but the English translation can be tricky. The French and Spanish may refer to a ganglion (part of the nervous system) OR a lymph node (part of a totally different body system) in English. So, while the English cognate “ganglion” sounds legitimate, a ganglion is in fact quite distinct from a lymph node. I have edited many a translation in which “ganglio” or “ganglion” in the Romance language was rendered as “ganglion” in English when the actual meaning is lymph node.

A text may specify “ganglion lymphatique” or “ganglio linfático” to disambiguate between ganglion and lymph node,…but “lymphatic ganglion” is totally nonsensical in English. You may point out that the cognate of “node” is actually “noeud” in French and “nódulo” in Spanish. It is, but in my (albeit limited) experience, “ganglion”/”ganglio” is used much more frequently in patient medical records. Hence the ambiguity when it comes to English translation.

As you might imagine, “false friends” such as this one can have life-or-death consequences in the medical field. So tread carefully — check, double check, and triple check what the foreign language term is actually referring to. While the foreign term may be a cognate of “ganglion,” and this term is just begging to be inserted into the translation, a ganglion is part of the nervous system and a lymph node is part of the totally distinct lymphatic system. A ganglion biopsy? Pretty meaningless; however, a lymph node biopsy is a real procedure. If a patient’s medical record discusses a lymph node biopsy, the translator must absolutely convey this accurately to the patient’s doctors. Remember — keep your false friends close, but your true friends closer.